Jason Dirden On His Infamous “Greenleaf” Character & Creating Production Opportunities For The City Of Houston
Whew chile! The plot twists and paternity tests in this season of Greenleaf. The popular drama on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) continues to peel back the layers in what was once the picture perfect pastoral lives of Bishop and Lady Mae Greenleaf (played by actors Keith David & Lynn Whitfield) who now seem destined to lose the megachurch at the epicenter of their power and influence. With Grace (Merle Dandridge) taking care of one salacious family secret by avenging the death of her sister Faith–which was the crux of the plot for the first two seasons—here comes Basie Skanks (Jason Dirden) returning from the dead like Lazarus to remind Bishop Greenleaf that they still have unfinished business.
Throughout season 3, Skanks’ presence hadn’t been seen but rather felt, through the addition of his “sister” Rochelle Cross (LeToya Luckett) to do the bidding on his behalf. Now with the season winding down, Jason’s immaculate portrayal of Pastor Basie Skanks has returned to our screens to steal the scenes with his impassioned monologues and a twisted charisma that’s left many fans wondering who’s the hero and who’s the villain?
Before Basie Skanks there was Levee—Jason received critical acclaim and was deserving of a standing ovation after making audiences laugh and cry from his portrayal of trumpet player Levee in “August Wilson’s: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” directed by Phylicia Rashad. Coincidentally, Levee in many ways seems like a precursor to Basie. In playing two slicker than oil, temperamental characters who are out for revenge, it’s amusing to know that in real life, Jason’s relaxed and hospitable personality is such a 180 from his incomparable performances. Yet it’s no surprise that he’s able to seamlessly embody whatever role he’s given. In addition to his formal training as a theater major at Morehouse College along with a Master’s Degree in Acting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Jason honed his skills on Broadway along side the legendary Denzel Washington in “Fences” and “A Raisin In The Sun”.
Next up, Jason is tackling a modern-day period piece with his role as “Gerald Aims”, a gangster and club owner in the forthcoming BET series, American Soul, which explores the personal life of Don Cornelius, creator and host of the iconic music series, Soul Train.
In the midst of Jason’s busy schedule, we sat down not once but twice to chat about how Greenleaf has humbled him as well as boosted his confidence. Why he’s not detoured by the rise of social media influencers turned actors, the casting challenges of looking racially ambiguous and extending his platform to reach back and give creatives in his hometown of Houston, Texas the opportunity to work on his new film.
Zon D’Amour: This is peak black man season in TV and film! Between the recent Best Actor Oscar winner being Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) or Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”) making history at the Emmy’s and Golden Globes and of course this was the year of Chadwick Boseman (“Black Panther”).
A common thread is that these men are all in their 40s. With many aspiring actors coming to LA in their 20s what advice would you share for understanding that there could be a ten or even twenty year gap between arrival and becoming “successful”? How do you stay the course and believe in yourself if your career isn’t taking off when you want it to?
Jason Dirden: Everyone you named are perfect examples of how the entertainment business works. Everyone is on their own journey, it doesn’t happen overnight nor does it necessarily happen in the first or second year, it could be later in life. I’m not in my 40s but I understand that number one, if you have a love for the work and what you’re doing, you have to calibrate for yourself what success is so that you’re not shooting for someone else’s success; you’re shooting for paying your bills and having a career that you’re proud of that’s full of passion and integrity. Hopefully that will translate to a career that people respect in the same vein, maybe not necessarily that of a “superstar” because everyone can’t reach that level–if they could then we wouldn’t have the term “superstar”. It’s only a select few that get there but that doesn’t mean that you’re not extremely successful.
So you just have to maintain that love and that passion for what you’re doing because in a way, that’s what feed you. Of course you need food for nourishment but we also need the ability to create our art in order for our souls to be fed. That’s what gets us up in the morning, the ability to do something that we love, that we’ve been put on this earth to do and effect people artistically. You may not be there just yet but it’s never too late.
“…If you love the work you’re doing, then you’re not shooting for someone else’s success, you’re shooting for paying your bills and having a career that you’re proud of that’s full of passion and integrity.
ZD: You have an extensive Broadway theatre resume. When we first met, you were starring in the August Wilson play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. Through the advent of social media, it seems as if many people get to skip crucial steps in the acting process. There are people who believe that all they need to do to star in a tv show or be cast in a film is have a million followers. Why is it important to still have formal training? As it can be confusing and somewhat divisive when you see social media stars on the same platform as actors who’ve truly studied their craft.
JD: I used to get upset and would say, ‘I’m trained, I’ve gone through all these years of school. I paid my dues on stage in New York and Los Angeles and I’m not getting the opportunities’… or at least the “instant” opportunities as someone who has 500K followers but that’s the business. It recently mutated into social media popularity becoming the new way for people to get opportunities but the entertainment business has always been looking for a ready made star with a ready made audience.
As an actor, you do get somewhat frustrated when someone gets an opportunity that could have been given to someone who’s actually trained and who can take advantage of that opportunity in a different way. But eventually, you see that cream rises to the top. If they don’t have the foundation nor the skill to maintain that popularity, will they still be getting those opportunities years from now? All they may have is the ability to bring an audience who’s looking for them to throw a drink, tell a certain joke or do something ridiculous to bring eyes to them but are they doing anything of substance? That’s why you have people who are “overnight successes” who last, “overnight” then you have people who you think are overnight successes who are around for decades because they’re coming with a substance, a craft and a skill to maintain the opportunities and the career that they’ve been afforded.
ZD: Oftentimes actors draw from personal experiences to portray a certain role. You do such an amazing job as Basie Skanks on “Greenleaf”. Is there a certain place that you pull from to embody such an audacious character?
JD: When you’re an actor your instinct is to observe the world, even when you’re not consciously doing it, you doing it out of habit. Basie Skanks is number one, incredibly written. He has so many fun things to say and you may not agree with him but you can’t deny there are truths at many levels about the church world and his adversaries and the people that he’s battling against.
As far as the character makeup itself, I don’t see him being any different than the guy at the barbershop in the hood who has that gift of gab–you don’t know if you should trust him, but you can’t stop listening to him and you can’t stop watching him. The beautiful part about Basie is that he knows the church world but he also understands the everyday man better than say, Bishop Greenleaf. [The Greenleaf’s] are on a level and in a social world where they can’t really connect the same way as the everyday man but Basie Skanks can and for me, those are the men at the barbershop.
I grew up in a Catholic Church so it’s totally different than Basie Skanks but you’re still putting on airs and seeing how the operation works around the congregation and then you combine that with a lil hustler spirit–Because obviously Bassie grew up in the streets and learned those lessons. You combine that then magnify it and sprinkle a little salt with the walk and the shade that I throw in. I wanted to make him fun and watchable but still be able to sneak in these truths that make the audience go, ‘Wait a minute, maybe Basie’s not wrong in what he’s saying? Maybe he’s actually right…?’ Those are the most fun characters to play. It’s like Killmonger in “Black Panther”. I don’t really call them the villains, I call them the adversaries because it leaves the audience questioning who’s really right?
ZD: I’ve previously interviewed Michael Ealy (“Being Mary Jane”), Omari Hardwick (“Power”) and Andre Hall (“Love Thy Neighbor”) and when asked about a struggle they had to overcome early in their career, they all mentioned being regulated to certain roles because they’re light skin. Were you ever overlooked for roles because you were perceived as too “racially ambiguous” and not “black enough” because of your complexion?
JD: It’s funny, sometimes the things we most want to be are the things that people won’t allow us to be. I love my blackness, I love black culture. I was raised on August Wilson as far as my theatre background and I just love telling stories about us and about who we are and what we’ve had to go through throughout the decades here in America. But because of my straight hair and my light skin, people don’t automatically assume that I’m black. People actually argue me down, ‘…but what are you mixed with?’ Blood and blood! My mamma black and my daddy black! And it’s black people who forget that we come in different colors, shades and hair textures.
I’ve often had to go up against the [casting feedback] ‘Jason’s great, he’s wonderful, but I don’t think the audience will think he’s black.’ When I was on Tyler Perry’s “House Of Payne” one of the jokes was, “My blaxican gigolo” but I have no Mexican in me whatsoever, but because of my appearance and being from Texas, you may assume that. That’s a very real struggle for me, actually getting into the black roles. At times, that’s a big hurdle that I’ve had to climb and you kind of solve that by stepping out, creating and producing your own projects.
ZD: Are you now in a space to leverage your current platform to create and produce your own content?
JD: Yes, I’m in pre-production for a film that I wrote. That’s what being an artist is and being a hustler is in show business. It’s that you parlay the platform that you have into the other thing that you really want to do. And you help to create opportunities for other people who don’t have the platform, that’s what this project is. It’s a family “dramedy” with a twist and it’s something that I guarantee you won’t see coming at all.
ZD: When you’re getting praise and validation for your role from the viewers, it could be hard to see areas where you could improve. Have you been humbled within this role? And how has starring in a series like “Greenleaf” helped you to grow as an actor?
JD: That’s a great question because as an actor you have to have a balance of humility but also confidence as well in order to play a character like Basie Skanks and to be on TV opposite of Lynn Whitfield, Keith David, Merle Dandridge and Laman Rucker. You have to have a sense of confidence that says, ‘I belong here. I haven’t been doing it as long as you all, I’m not as seasoned as you all, I know that…’ That’s where the humility comes in, ‘I’m going to learn from you inevitably but I also belong here and you may learn something from me as well.’ And that’s not from an ego standpoint, but artistically, we’re all bringing something different to our roles in the show. To have that kind of cast–Lynn and Keith, I’ve admired their work for nearly twenty years.
Then the Executive Producer/Director of many of the episodes, Clemente Virgo, he’s so good at being honest with the story. He wants to get to the hearts of these people and the hearts of their relationships. When you have all of those ingredients in the gumbo pot how could you go wrong? It’s a great situation.
Watch Greenleaf Wednesday’s at 9pm on OWN and follow Jason on social media @JasonDirden